A group of oil drillers are returning to civilisation when their plane crashes, stranding the survivors in the Alaskan tundra. It's freezing, they're lost and food's running out. But their biggest problem is the pack of savage wolves whose ‘kill zone’ they've stumbled into.
In certain, over-excitable corners of the blogosphere, The Grey has been renamed Wolf Puncher. That’s understandable: the trailer does, after all, go heavy on imagery of Liam Neeson strapping miniature bottles of liquor to his knuckles, then limbering up to face a slavering beast. But Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to The A-Team is actually a long, long way from that bicep-baring, tank-flinging slab of macho cheese. A tale of men dropped into an extreme survival scenario, it’s best described as a meditation on grief and resilience. And if that makes it sound boring, it’s not. At all.
The opening sets the tone: while the other roughnecks on his oil-drilling crew celebrate the end of their Alaskan stint, loner John Ottway (Liam Neeson) wanders out into the snow, kneels down and puts a shotgun barrel in his mouth. For whatever reason, the howl of a far-off timber wolf makes him opt out of suicide — for now. One horrific plane-crash later, Ottway finds himself lost in the wilderness, the wolf's brethren relentlessly stalking him and his fellow survivors, a fire slowly sparking to life in our hero’s eyes.
It's a meaty role, and Neeson sinks his teeth into it and doesn't let go, whether he’s growling lines like, “I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds,” or quietly talking a man through his protracted death. You believe, 100 per cent, that this is the man you’d want by your side when everything goes to hell.
Ottway’s clearly the alpha male of the pack, with the rest of the group far more hazily sketched — there's an ex-con (nasty), a family man (wears glasses) and so on. But that’s kind of the point. The whole tale can be read as a metaphor: a grief-stricken man wandering in the woods of depression, haunted by demons that just won’t leave him alone, trying to hold himself together long enough to make it out the other side.
Or you could just grab some popcorn and enjoy it as one of the best survival horrors in years. Carnahan succeeds where the likes of The Way Back failed, making this trip to the edge of hell more thrilling than draining. No green screens here, just a bona fide freezing forest where even the trees can kill. As for the wolves — a combination of puppetry, real beasts and 300-style CGI — they’re as wily, implacable and haunting as fairy-tale creatures. Except Red Riding Hood never strapped miniature bottles of liquor to her knuckles.
Carnahan’s best work since Narc, with a powerhouse performance by Neeson and real emotional heft. So, as much Gut Puncher as Wolf Puncher.